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Decoding the Subtext: The Second Stain

Dates:

Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Second Stain in October of 1886, several days after The Resident Patient and The Noble Bachelor. It was first published in September, 1904, shortly after Holmes' retirement. It is interesting to note that Watson does not mention a date within this story, but does refer to his marriage; though whether he is referring to Miss Morstan, or Baring-Gould's first wife, is unclear.

Synopsis:

In the Adventure of the Second Stain, two infamous politicians grace the sitting room at 221B Baker Street to request Holmes' aid in locating a document of great political importance. So important is this document that war may very well erupt if its contents are discovered. Holmes agrees to take on the case, but finds it is far more complicated than he first imagined. Days pass before Holmes discovers his missing link; a second stain which unravels the entire mystery, and the woman behind it. With a little sleight of hand, Holmes is able to resolve the case to everyone's satisfaction.

The Subtext:

I had intended "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public. This resolution of mine was not due to any lack of material, since I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded, nor was it caused by any waning interest on the part of my readers in the singular personality and unique methods of this remarkable man.

The above is the paragraph that opens The Second Stain. It was written by Watson in 1904, some twenty-three years after their first meeting. It is interesting to note that, despite the passage of two decades, Watson refers to Holmes as a remarkable man, and makes particular note of his singular personality. It is obvious here that Watson never once grew tired of Holmes, nor did he ever lose interest in Holmes' career. A twenty-three year relationship and Watson is just as enthralled with Holmes as he was when they first met. Truly, this is a sign of a deep and lasting love.

The Second Stain is a remarkable story in that it contains several passages that lend weight to the theory that Watson felt some attraction towards men. We know that he often expressed interest in the 'fairer sex', so it is safe to assume Watson can be defined as heterosexual. The Second Stain, however, provides an argument for bisexuality, which allows one to speculate on the sexual nature of Watson's attraction to Holmes. His love for Holmes has not been disputed, for love exists independent of sexuality, but when examining the potential sexual elements of Holmes and Watson's relationship, one must examine sexuality.

The other, dark, clear-cut, and elegant, hardly yet of middle age, and endowed with every beauty of body and of mind...

This is the description Watson provides for Trelawney Hope, one of the politicians who first sought Holmes' help in locating a missing political document. Watson refers to this man as elegant, and then goes on to state that he was endowed with every beauty of body, a clear indication of Watson's appreciation. Later, Watson, when referring to the second gentleman, refers to his eyes as wonderful, a curious choice of words, indeed:

Holmes turned away smiling from the keen scrutiny of those wonderful eyes.

The two noteworthy politicians remain long enough to provide the details surrounding the missing letter. Upon leaving, Holmes immediately deduces that there are only three men in all of London who might now hold this letter. Watson, upon hearing the names, remarks to Holmes that one of the men appears in the day's paper, seemingly murdered.

My friend has so often astonished me in the course of our adventures that it was with a sense of exultation that I realized how completely I had astonished him. He stared in amazement, and then snatched the paper from my hands.

We are already quite aware that Watson is perpetually amazed by Holmes, and yet, here it would appear that, on occasions, Watson is just as capable of astonishing Holmes. In fact, I very much doubt that anyone (aside from Watson, of course) should be capable of such a feat. This is highly suggestive when one examines the reasons behind Holmes' desire to keep Watson as a constant companion. For a man who is very rarely surprised, Watson must, on occasion, prove quite delightful.

Holmes recovers fairly quickly, and the pair begin to examine the case in earnest. Before they can delve too deep, however, they are interrupted by the arrival of Trelawney Hope's wife. Holmes remains polite, but it is obvious that he is frustrated by this interruption. As their interview progresses, Holmes shifts from irritation to suspicion, and upon her leave-taking, turns to Watson to ask:

"Now, Watson, the fair sex is your department," said Holmes with a smile, when the dwindling frou-frou of skirts had ended in the slam of the front door. "What was the fair lady's game? What did she really want?"

Aside from acknowledging what we have long suspected (that Holmes' experience with women is limited, if not entirely non-existent), we see here that Holmes is deeply suspicious of women, as he automatically assumes her visit had some ulterior motive. This theme continues, as Holmes states:

"And yet the motives of women are so inscrutable. You remember the woman at Margate whom I suspected for the same reason. No powder on her nose — that proved to be the correct solution. How can you build on such a quicksand? Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend upon a hairpin or a curling tongs."

It is curious to note that, if we assume Baring-Gould's chronology, then this case occurs a few days after The Resident Patient and The Noble Bachelor. Watson stated in The Noble Bachelor that he was a few weeks away from his marriage, which would imply that we are now perhaps a week away from his marriage. A curious time, then, for Holmes to question the virtue of women. This is particularly noticeable in Holmes' question: How can you build on such quicksand? Again, it is made obvious that Holmes is strongly opposed to Watson's impending marriage.

Their conversation seems to hit a little too close to home, and Holmes, perhaps embarrassed by his remark, perhaps feeling as though he has revealed too much, chooses to leave. Watson, it should be noted, is not invited to participate in the initial investigation, something that is seemingly off when one considers Holmes' past behaviour. Could it be that Holmes required some distance? Perhaps as a means of burying the anxiety and upset Holmes was experiencing in regards to Watson's upcoming nuptials?

All that day and the next Holmes was in a mood which his friends would call taciturn, and others morose. He ran out and ran in, smoked incessantly, played snatches on his violin, sank into reveries, devoured sandwiches at irregular hours, and hardly answered the casual questions which I put to him.

Although we have seen Holmes frustrated over the proceedings (or lack thereof) of a case, we have not seen him in such a depressed state. Holmes' depression tends to be reserved for those occasions when he is without case. One cannot help but question whether Holmes' mood is the direct result of the case at hand, or if it is entirely related to Watson, Watson's impending marriage, and his earlier outburst, which Holmes no doubt worries conveyed entirely too much emotion.

In fact, Holmes' mood has deteriorated to such a degree that days pass before Holmes once again includes Watson in his investigation.

"My dear Watson," said he, as he rose from the table and paced up and down the room, "you are most long-suffering, but if I have told you nothing in the last three days, it is because there is nothing to tell."

Here, the combination of 'dear' and Holmes statement that Watson is 'long-suffering' is a clear indication of Holmes' guilt. He realizes that he has behaved badly and feels incredibly remorseful for having done so. Holmes has also come to realize the importance of having Watson by his side, for it is not until he includes Watson that he begins to make some headway.

"...Put on your hat, Watson, and we will stroll down together to Westminster."

It is not until Watson takes his rightful place at Holmes' side that Holmes is able to arrive at the correct solution. What is more, Holmes realizes this, and as the pieces connect, Holmes is more than willing to once again include Watson in his investigation.

"Now, Watson, now!" cried Holmes with frenzied eagerness.

"Quick, Watson, quick! Get it back again!"


It should be remarked that Holmes was seen to be leaning languidly against the mantelpiece shortly after this scene. The author will leave the reader to fill in the blanks.

Having realized the importance of Watson's role in Holmes' work (and, indeed, life) Holmes is more than willing to make amends. He does so subtly, but with some warmth.

"Come, friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act."

Watson takes all of this in stride, never once questioning his friend's mood swings; a mark of just how enamoured Watson truly is. It is interesting to note here that Holmes' initial suspicion of Mrs. Hope proves to be warranted, for it was in fact her who stole her husband's document. Holmes seems quite pleased with this, and one can almost imagine him turning to Watson to say: Ha! This is what comes of trusting the fairer sex, my dear Watson. He does not, of course, and yet, as he explains to Watson that he has solved the case, his tone comes dangerously close to gloating.

My mind filled with admiration for this extraordinary man.

Not that Watson seems to mind, for I dare say there is nothing Holmes could have said or done which would have resulted in a different sentiment. Watson, quite frankly, is too blinded by admiration (and, indeed, love) to notice Holmes' flaws.

I am going to conclude, not with a quote, but with a concept. The story ends with Holmes actively concealing Mrs. Hope's actions in an effort to protect her from her husband's disappointment. He does this largely in response to Mrs. Hope's pleas, for it is obvious to the reader (and to Holmes) that her actions were based entirely on the misguided desire to protect the man she loves. This is quite telling, as a man incapable of love would likely have exposed Mrs. Hope: one incapable of love is often incapable of understanding the faulty logic that lies behind it. This stands as undisputed proof, then, that Holmes has known love (perhaps even knows love) for why else would he be willing to go to such lengths to save a marriage?

Many scholars have painted Holmes as something more akin to machine than man, incapable of love or the compassion that comes from seeing and recognizing love. This story paints a very different picture of Sherlock Holmes, one that suggests that he knows love entirely too well, and, indeed, that he is more than willing to sacrifice one of his core principles to ensure love's survival.

 
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